I have been home for six days now, but I suspect it’ll be another six weeks, months even, before I’m able to stop thinking about Colombia’s Caribbean Coast.
Pamela and I left Bogotá pleasantly surprised by our time there, both wishing we had a couple more days in the capital but also ready to explore a new region of the country. A 90-minute flight (preferable to a 12-hour bus ride, you had better believe it!) on South America’s oldest airline, Avianca, took us to CTG, aka Cartagena de Indias. The door to the plane opened and so much humidity overtook the plane it was as if a wall collapsed upon us. Yep, definitely different from Bogotá!
I will spare you a site-by-site itinerary and instead, simply summarize: Cartagena is wonderful. Thick stone walls, topped with cannons, almost entirely encircle the old city, where horse-drawn carriages rule the streets, not pedestrians and certainly not cars. Inside these walls lies a photographer’s dream; I have over 1,400 Cartagena pics to go through, so it’ll be awhile before I have any to share with you, Loyal Reader.
Somewhat interestingly (for me) is that several of my fondest Cartagena memories weren’t even captured on film. I am thinking of sunset from the city walls our first night in town. I am thinking of alfresco dining as local kids stopped by our table to “rap” to us, adapting the lyrics to our reactions. I am thinking of late night coffee breaks in Plaza de Bolívar, when the evening breeze had finally cooled the air down to tolerable levels. I am thinking of nightly serenades by our hotel room’s resident gecko. I am thinking of amazing pizzas eaten by Pamela and I at an upstairs restaurant, the owner of which has cheese specially-imported from Italy! As we dined in our balcony niche in the lively barrio of Getsemaní, the streets below were alive with locals cheering for the national fútbol team, which had advanced to the next qualifying level. Cartagenans cheered, horns blared, vuvuzelas tooted. I am thinking of fried bananas, coconut rice, Club Colombia (cerveza), and some of the best seafood I’ve ever tasted.
Pamela’s and my last stop as a couple traveling together was Santa Marta, one of the oldest continually-inhabited cities in the Americas. What I once imagined as a sleepy port town today is a lively city of half-a-million people. It seems most backpackers stop off here just briefly, on their way to Tayrona National Park, or Ciudad Perdida, or Minca, or Taganga, or…but Santa Marta itself has a surprising lot to offer. For starters, Santa Marta is home to one of the best urban beaches in the world. We spent much of Easter Sunday lazing on the beach and swimming in the sea, alongside dozens of locals. When visiting Santa Marta a second time, later in my trip, I noticed another, longer beach, on the other side of the marina, nearly devoid of people. How is this possible?!
Pamela and I parted ways after Santa Marta (but only for a week, Loyal Reader, so don’t you fret). She went back to Mexico while I stayed in Colombia and tackled the notorious trail to the “lost Tairona city” of Ciudad Perdida (in Spanish, it literally means “Lost City”). This multi-day trek was once off-limits to all but the heartiest of adventurers, as camping conditions were primitive and as the surrounding jungle was prime territory for the FARC and other guerilla groups. Things have gotten safer since late last decade, and the Ciudad Perdida excursion is now the thing to do if you have at least four extra days to spare. I’ve had my eye on this track for the last several years, and lucked into a spot with Magic Tours, one of the main Santa Marta and Taganga-area tour companies specializing in C.P. hikes. I’d signed up for the five-day hike, packed my hiking boots, wide-brimmed hat, waterproof pack liner, and insect repellent, so I was ready to go!
In a nutshell, the hike was tough, one of the hardest physical challenges I have yet faced. What was I thinking, I wondered, three hours into the first day’s hike as I toted a heavy pack, it and me both drenched in sweat, and negotiated an impossibly-steep, muddy and muleshit-ridden trail? I had already lost my balance on one of the day’s several river crossings; my boots were soaked through, caked with mud, and unlikely to dry for the remainder of the hike. I generally considered myself a fit hiker, usually not the fastest on the trail (if only for my penchant for frequent photography stops), but almost always the one most willing to walk farther than anyone else. My first summit of SoCal’s Mt. San Gorgonio (2008) clocked in at 24.5 miles in less than 12 hours, and on summit night of my Mt. Kilimanjaro hike (2010) I was leading the pack for much of the way until I finally had to stop when the urge to vomit sucker-punched me at 17,500 feet.
I figured it out: The night before, Pamela and I toasted our time in Colombia with more cervezas than the recommended number (what that number is, I don’t know). I was far from being hungover when the hike finally began the next afternoon, but nevertheless the rule is as follows: steep uphill hikes with heavy packs and wet boots are never a good idea following a night of much drinking and little sleeping. (She and I had a different kind of “celebration” later that night as well, but that’s all I’m gonna say about that!) An alcohol-fueled evening, coupled with the fact that I’m simply not used to hiking in such humidity, led for slow going on my part.
Things improved for me on the second day, and even moreso on the third. Each night’s camp had cold showers, and lo, they were a treat! Food was plentiful, and delicious. Our guide, Flaco, kept a swift pace but factored in enough rest stops to mostly keep the group together. Two Norwegian girls in my group who had also signed up for the five-day hike expressed interest in changing to the four-day hike, and by the end of day three I’d more-or-less decided to join them. Much (but certainly not all, oh no) of the return trip was downhill, and considering that the rain had thus far held off, I realized that it was worth hightailing it out of there before the already-loose trails turned into torrents of mud. (The air was so heavy with humidity for all but a few hours of our entire journey that it always felt as if it was going to rain at any second…but it never did.)
I am getting ahead of myself. Ciudad Perdida, the former citadel of the Tairona people and supposed fortress of a treasure in gold, was reached the morning of our third day. It was just a one-hour hike from our camp, but what an hour it was! We hopped over car-sized boulders, swatted mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds, and crossed a river with thigh-deep water before reaching the site entrance: 1,260 mossy-slippery stairs climbing up, up, into seemingly never-ending jungle highlands. Finally we’d arrived. The lower terraces were as evocative as I’d hoped, like something out of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider or, perhaps thinking wishfully, like the jungle Harrison Ford barely escaped from during the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Okay, so they were just stone circles overgrown in moss and with the occasional frog hopping about. Still, it was our group of 12, plus Flaco, plus a mysterious man in red later revealed to be the “Chamán de Pan” (literally, “Bread Shaman”)…and no one else.
We climbed even higher, made an obligatory photo stop at the Shaman’s Throne, then enjoyed an hour or so of free time. Most of us climbed higher still, to the uppermost platform. Here, trees were removed to clear the view looking down on the largest platforms, which just peaked above the verdant canopy of green. Clouds danced above us, a waterfall could be seen in the hills behind us; although it appeared to be miles away, its roar suggested otherwise. We were watched over – not by a higher power (certainly not by the same higher power that the Tairona likely believed in) but by the Colombian army. A small patrol is stationed here for six months at a time. It turns out that the Bread Shaman is their baker, literally. He loads his pack with “fresh” (a term used loosely up here, where everything must be carried in by foot) bread for the soldiers and accompanies any trekking groups to the lost city. It was probably good thinking on his part not to walk alone; a fall descending those 1,260 steps with no one around to help would likely be fatal.
Finally, it was time to go back. I can’t speak for everyone, but I took longer going down the stairs than going up them. My knees, which have been known to betray me on some of my more rugged hikes, were holding up well, but I couldn’t say the same for my feet. I’d cut my right calf on day two, then accidentally sprayed mosquito repellent on the wound just two hours later. I stubbed my toe crossing the river the morning of day three and irritated it even more that afternoon whilst chasing a sandal that had been swept away by the Río Buritaca (long story). By nightfall mi dedito had turned several shades of purple. An Aussie in our group taught us a fun card game called Yannif that evening; Yannif and a lecture by one of the indigenous shamans in the area distracted me from the physical pain I might have otherwise felt.
Note: over 1,000 indigenous people – the last descendants of the Tairona (also spelled “Tayrona”) people still live in the mountains, usually in small thatched-roof villages and in close-knit family groups. Most are quite shy, few speak more than rudimentary Spanish, and many have never seen a car. The children, however, have become accustomed to seeing C.P. trekkers. Some are bold enough to ask for dulces (sweets) in exchange for photos; I wonder what they think of us sunburned, scantily-clad backpackers?
Day four, still no rain, and I decided: I’m going all the way back. I kept a good pace and was finally used to the weight of my pack. I kept up with the group and didn’t slip once. (This was my biggest fear, as I had previously wiped out on a long downhill section – the second day – and cut my right leg.) There was a near-faceplant (into the river) on one of day four’s last crossings, but I credit my mad ballerina skills for keeping my upper torso (and my camera!) out of the drink. I actually led the bulk of our group back into base camp (a dusty village called “Mamey” that consisted of more dogs and chickens than humans), only to discover that the two Australians in our group had arrived there three hours earlier!
Please humor my possible over-dramatization of Ciudad Perdida trek events. The hike was hard as hell, but each day really did get easier, and the lost city itself – if not quite on the level of, say, Machu Picchu or Tikal – exceeded my expectations. Our group’s reward for our efforts: cold Águila beer, a great lunch, and a long, bumpy ride back into civilization. First up on almost everyone’s agenda: a trip to the nearest beach or swimming pool!
My next blog will feature final thoughts about my trip as a whole, and pics! Thanks for going with me on this incredible journey. I hope you’ll keep following my blog in the months ahead.